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// Finally, Ireland is starting to see the wood for the trees
A BUNCH OF 14 people beam at the camera in bright spring sunshine, the woods in shadow behind them. Dads and grandads mainly, some in wellies and braced with spades. They've had a good day in the local forest park (Belleek, outside Ballina, Co Mayo) planting walnut trees and hazels among the conifers. These are ultimately for nuts for red squirrels, the woods' new settlers.
The photo and e-mail were sent to show what Ballina people are doing for their local forest since Coillte invited them to help make it an amenity. I wondered how they had taken the rumours that the Government might sell off the nation’s forests. The idea they could be bought by a Chinese-backed consortium, with Bertie Ahern as frontman, seemed for a while just surreal enough for the times.
How Irish people feel about their forests and woods has been brought home in protests and e-mail petitions. Quite apart from land and history, there’s a new sense of connectedness with trees. Even the much-maligned conifers, Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine have been tamed into their place in the landscape, enriching it aesthetically at times, as well as economically.
There have also been great changes in the character of forestry and in the woods – often as new planting has passed into private hands. It took EU grants to help shift the impetus for planting to private foresters, mainly farmers, who now own almost half of the 10 per cent of the Republic that is forested.
Incentives for private hardwood forestry, on better land, have helped boost broad-leaf trees – ash, birch, oak and the rest – to an average of about 37 per cent of annual plantings. That’s still short of the equal ratio urged by biodiversity advocates such as the Heritage Council and far from the ecological ideal of mixed, “continuous cover” forests. But, as with any sapling, the only way is up.
Coillte, meanwhile, has been given space for a dramatic reappraisal of what public forests are for. From its first reshaping of hard-edged plantations to a better fit with the landscape, to its current restoration of old native woodlands and redundant bogland habitats, it seems increasingly embowered in broader notions of the public good. “Social forestry” once made work for the poorer, rural west.
Today, with an “open forest” policy, its benefit extends to society as a whole. Belleek is only one example of a local community taking trees into their lives.
As if matched to the moment, a hefty and strikingly handsome new book, Stopping by Woods: a guide to the forests and woodlands of Ireland, is published by Lilliput Press. The price for its 530 pages and nearly 1,000 photographs (¤35 hardback, ¤25 paperback) reflect support from the Forest Service. Its author, Donal Magner, is a dedicated, vigorous figure in national forestry, who has warned of “huge opposition” to any plan to sell off Coillte.
Begun as a series in the Irish Farmer’s Journal, his book explores 340 forests and woods across the island, most with historical roots in the community. After five years of criss-crossing the island, the walks he describes must make up the widest field experience of any forester on the island.
While woodlands now offer a good mix of species, especially where old estates have been rescued from the mid-20th-century tide of planting conifers, Sitka spruce is still the reliable workhorse of the forest – even, in its response to Irish climate, a thoroughly majestic king. In west Cork’s Guagán Barra, for example, Sitka planted in 1939 are now 40m tall; at Downhill in Co Derry, two have girths of almost 7m, which make them the largest in Ireland.
Some of the book’s kaleidoscope of photographs are reminders of forestry’s central purpose: the production of sound, straight timber; the cathedral pillars of Norway spruce in Co Down’s Ballysallagh Wood are noble indeed. But the woods are full of surprises – sudden lakes, cascades and waterfalls, old bridges and mossy stone circles, a lost ice-house, wood sculptures.
Donal Magner takes his title from a poem by Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (do Google it), and a study of the famous King Oak of Co Offaly’s Charleville Wood is a reminder of the winter past. But, were I anywhere near Co Westmeath this spring, I would make for Mullaghmeen Wood, north of Mullingar.
Here, in the 1940s and against all fashion and policy, the local forester planted 365 hectares of beech on the brown, lime-rich soil. This now ranks as the biggest beech plantation in western Europe. As it breaks into leaf around the end of this month, the wood will pour its sunlight into the most thrilling, translucent green the island has to offer.
23 Apr 2011